With the LA-set robbery-gone-wrong spectacle “Ambulance,” Michael Bay returns to his mayhem roots – that part of his career when he didn’t need a lot of CGI, but still didn’t know how to shoot action cohesively.
Can one be nostalgic for a filmmaker villain’s destructive origins? It might not matter if what you’re really pining for is the authentic gnarl of actual vehicles moving at top speeds on real streets, for multiple genuine collisions and true explosions, in an age when the common fare for thrill-seekers is digitized superheroes and green-screened action.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing when directors can’t help themselves; fetishes can be fun! But even if you’ve been longing for a more grounded, gritty car-chase movie since the “Fast” franchise left physics behind ages ago, Bay’s addiction to confusion and pointlessness as operating visual/narrative principles keeps even this shoulda-been auto-pocalypse from being in any way pleasurable.
TV writer Chris Fedak’s screenplay is an amped-up remake of a 2005 Danish thriller about two bank-robbing brothers who hijack an ambulance in desperation, only to find a female paramedic and a heart-attack patient on board. Bay takes that not-bad high concept and defibrillates it repeatedly until the energy becomes a static, unrelenting screech, not unlike when a local news channel’s coverage of a police chase turns into living-room background noise.
Right away, Bay and his restless shooting style and visual crutches (saturating sunlight, meaningless inserts) convey boredom at having to sell the rudiments of the story’s set-up. It makes sense that jobless war veteran Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “The Matrix Revolutions”), needing money for his wife’s experimental surgery, would secretly go to his shady brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) for a loan. It’s an unfathomable leap that Will would instantly agree to tag along as a gun-toting participant in Danny’s gang’s downtown bank heist.
Gyllenhaal is a versatile actor, and can imbue nefarious roles with plenty of charm, but there’s little that’s believably convincing about his recruitment efforts here, since he mostly comes off as psychotic. (Danny comes from a crime family that took in orphaned Will as a child.)
When the robbery devolves (again, stupidly) into a firefight with police, the brothers split off (with $16 million in cash) and take over an ambulance with no-nonsense paramedic Camille (Eiza González, “Godzilla vs. Kong”) on board tending to a wounded officer (Jackson White, “Mrs. Fletcher”). The brothers’ attempt at slipping away also fails, however, incurring an all-over-LA pursuit – led by an aggressive LAPD captain (Garret Dillahunt) and a more level-headed FBI Special Agent (Keir O’Donnell, “The Dry”), who clash naturally – that threatens to demolish as many cop cars as “The Blues Brothers” did.
Other movies, in fact, can’t help but enter the moviegoer’s conscience. Sometimes it’s a reference as blatant as a neon sign, as when a character literally mentions “The Rock” and “Bad Boys.” Elsewhere, when a set piece recalls a City of Angels action classic, the comparisons aren’t favorable: “Ambulance” is no “The Driver,” no “Speed,” no “Heat” or “Collateral,” no “Terminator 2” (there’s a so-so LA river sequence), and not even B-minus Friedkin, as when Bay stages a wrong-way freeway escape à la “To Live and Die in LA.”
The city’s lesser-spotlit downtown locations are often great (credit production designer Karen Frick), but they can rarely be enjoyed, so quickly does Bay, his enabling director of photography Roberto De Angelis, and editing team have to slice-and-dice everything into a bland salsa cruda of shots, with rollercoaster-drop aerial drones Bay’s especially indulgent flavor this time around.
Though Bay is back in urban-playground territory that once gave us some charismatic pairings (Smith and Lawrence, Cage and Connery), he’s lost whatever ability he had in turning Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen into a similarly combustible, electric, ride-or-die team. González has a fizzier magnetism as the defiant, ultra-capable hostage – ready for emergency surgery in a moving vehicle or keep-everyone-alive chitchat as needed –- and there are times one wishes she were the only action hero here, instead of sharing time with Gyllenhaal’s over-the-top rogue and Abdul-Mateen’s poorly conceived good guy in over his head. A late attempt at adding another stakes-raising threat for Danny and Will, in the form of A Martinez’s chop-shop owner, mostly feels like overkill.
“Ambulance” runs its sirens and squeals its tires for a long time before things grind to a halt in bullets, tears, and slo-mo heroics, but palpable danger is never in play, nor exhilaration – not even appreciation for a sun-kissed metropolis so wonderfully gridded for full-throttle thrills. You can sense how it might have started out as a battery-recharger for an insanely successful popcorn director – a fleet, efficient backyard project meant to take advantage of a locked-down city for some disreputable, gun-and-run fun.
But whatever it promises flatlines too soon under Bay’s bigger-and-longer, no-pain-no-gain, adrenaline-junkie mindset.
“Ambulance” opens in US theaters April 8.